LONDON — If you like bacon and don’t have a menial job, here’s the show to make you feel bad. Both the fate of pigs and professional cleaners hang in the balance at Waterside Contemporary’s Oreet Ashery: Animal with a Language, where you are prompted to consider your own role in their exploitation. But the installation and film work now on display troubles you with nothing less than humor, forgiveness, and a touch of psychedelia.
London-based artist Oreet Ashery has a background in drama, so as you might imagine there is something stage-y about her solo exhibition: she has painted the floor a porcine pink and her figurative sculptures tread the boards on a pair of similarly colored daises. This renders the space pretty cheerful, an effect which half a dozen figures do nothing to dispel. And in a comical flourish, like a full stop on the whole piece, a plastic parrot balances on a red ball. It puts one in mind of a tiki bar rather than a white cube.
Meanwhile, the figures, such as they are, recall a costume gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In their slack plastic ponchos, which bear slogans marked out of tape, they wear the look of mannequins rather than classical sculptures. This is heightened by the intermittent avant-garde soundtrack piping across the space. Recent visitors to the Malevich show at Tate Modern might be put in mind of the Russian artist at this point.
His stage design for “Victory over the Sun” (1913) was, in terms of art, a revolution. It gave Malevich the language needed to develop Suprematism. And he returned to the theater in 1918 when he designed the staging of Mystery Bouffe by poet and playwright Mayakovsky. The play, dedicated to the revolution, would today be considered a flop; the proletariat found it impossible to follow.
Ashery risks a repeat failure in communication, because even the most bourgeois art lover might not get the immediate reference to Mayakovsky and the Mystery Bouffe. But, clearly, it is there in the gallery notes. These figures are the cast for a staging of the revolutionary play, in which many characters are listed as either “clean” or “unclean.” This artist’s big clue is the proliferation of cleaning materials with which her actors would be clothed.
There are boas made from scouring pads, accessories from rubber gloves, hats made from kitchen towels, cleaning cloth–scarves. Bodies are improvised with mops and aluminum buckets. It all goes to remind you that cleaning takes place on an industrial scale and that, pending another revolution or two, there will always be those underpaid souls who earn their living with bleach and elbow grease. Some of them will live on this gallery’s surrounding estates.
But the exhibition is far from being solemn propaganda. Ashery’s cleaners are fabulous and fun. One wears a whistle. One wears a smiley. It strikes you that cleaning gear tends towards the dayglo. And so the artist draws an unlikely parallel between rave culture and comic opera, between a radical music genre and commemoration of a genuine revolution. “If I can’t dance,” wrote anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, “I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Ashery might feel the same way.
Which brings us to the bacon. In part two of the show, a pair of enveloping hammocks hang you out before a monitor on which a trippy screensaver comprised of pink spheres cuts in and out with a tastefully arranged couple in the nude. He cradles her. She holds an apple in her mouth and, thanks to post production, her head is expanded. The voiceover relates details of “the public and private procedures for the slaughter of pigs.” It gives rise to the kind of discomfort which carnivores find so easy to compartmentalize. But still, one does wonder about the hypocrisy of legislating for a pig’s wellbeing even as they are driven up to the abattoir.
As you watch the film, you are watched in turn by a black model pig who peers around a corner at you. Ashery suggests there is something “paranormal” about her pigs. There is certainly something uncanny.
You don’t have to worry though. There’s another monitor here, sunk into one of the pig-pink plinths. Looking down into this, like a reflective Narcissus, we find another cast of characters, a lot more everyday than the acid house cleaning crew. One after the other, they look directly at the camera or at us and take turns to wink. It seems it’s only an art show, after all.
Across town on October 16, Ashery staged a group performance at the Swedenborg Society. Given its connection to an 18th-century mystic with a belief in extra-terrestrials, it is surely one of the most resonant venues in London. Audience members were issued with fly swats (as paddles) for an event billed as a “21st-Century Carpet Sale.” The auction room itself was a well-appointed neoclassical lecture hall. Alien life may have been hinted at by the dozen or so performers dressed in pink nightgowns and aluminum foil helmets.
After half an hour of processional dance, in which the cast emerged from tightly rolled rugs, business got underway. Each lot was a carpet embroidered with the name of a society that had previously held an event in this hall. Each carpet was only a section of the original soft furnishing which was bought nearby and for many years would have been found here, host to such varied bodies as the Albert Camus Society, Codependents Anonymous, and the Society of Biographers.
Despite the occasion taking place half way through Frieze week, little money changed hands. Eagerness and amusing repartee were the currency for most of these art rugs. Thanks to an auctioneer on stilts and a pair of theatrical carpet handers, this was more comic spectacle than the dead hand of the market. But still, there was something quite unsettling about the merry parcelling up and selling off of a piece of history like this. Perhaps it was a revolutionary act, or perhaps it was just another knowing wink.
Oreet Ashery: Animal with a Language continues at Waterside Contemporary (2 Clunbury Street, London) through November 22.
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